Monday, December 15, 2008

Ho, ho, ho. Made in India

During one trip to India I met Surendra, who exports goods to the United States. I often think of him this time of year, especially when I'm shopping. He's in the business of supplying some of the retail giants in the U.S. with Christmas paraphernalia—stockings, tree skirts, tea and hand towels. Basically, anything red and green or a combination thereof and usually embroidered or embellished with sparkly accents.

He was very kind and welcoming. I had dinner at his house during Diwali, also known as the Festival of Lights, a celebration usually held at the end of October. It's a beautiful and festive time in India, especially in Jaipur, where buildings and homes are festooned with lights. Diwali has several meanings within the jumble of religions in India but essentially, it is a time to celebrate with family, give thanks, and ask for health and prosperity. Particular to Hinduism, the festival marks the victory of good over evil. Surendra and his family held a puja (prayer) before dinner in their small in-house temple. Specific Gods and Goddesses are important during this celebration including Laskshmi, the Goddess of wealth, propserity and luck.

The next day Surendra took a drive out to the country to visit villagers. We stopped in his four-wheel drive and he bought bananas on the side of the road to bringto the families. During the drive he spoke about the business of Christmas. He explained that when he first started manufacturing Christmas decorations neither he, nor the women making them, knew what they were. "I did not know what Christmas stockings were or what they were used for. I was making tree skirts for a year and a half and didn't know what they were. The women thought they were skirts that American women wore." As we drove by farmland, camel carts, and young girls carrying enormous bundles of kindling on their heads, Surendra talked about his success exporting Christmas goods. He said he has made 52,000 tree skirts and 72,000 Christmas stockings in just two years. "You worship God and ask for peace and prosperity for your family. Jesus has given me this." I thought this very ironic. And hilarious.

Surendra also talked about how villagers are trained and given the skills necessary to make the pieces. He offered that the job takes women out of the fields and away from other back-breaking means of work He also mentioned how his wife would help the workers if they needed health care or other assistance. I was very curious thought it would make a good article. Consumers would learn that there were a real pair of hands behind their Christmas stocking. After my return I e-mailed Surendra a couple of times inquiring about a potential article but I never heard back. I'm guessing it was more information than he wanted to share.

I often flip through the catalogs of retailers this time of year looking at Christmas decorations and see the word "Imported" printed after the description and before the ridiculously hiked up price. I'll pick up items in these same stores and invariably they have the little tag "Made in India", evidence of its origin. I always wonder if consumers really know how many hands have touched the things they casually buy. And if the hands and people behind these crafts are earning their fair share for their efforts.

Image: Village girl on her way home from the fields.

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